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Filmmaker notes - Director Eddie Martin

lionel film poster
Lionel film poster

In my teens and early twenties I was greatly inspired by stories about the aboriginal boxing champion Lionel Rose recalled by friends living in and around Drouin and Warrigal, Lionel's own country. For me, his story took on mythological proportions and whilst I would see his photos on the walls of working class drinking holes, I didn't feel I really knew the man behind the myth. I could sense the importance of this buried idol and his place as a great Australian and felt compelled to follow his story through.

I had imagined that a documentary on Lionel would already exist and thought that, at the very least, I would do a contemporary version of his story. After some initial research, I was amazed to discover such a documentary did not in fact exist. This empowered me to move to the next stage. The fact that his life had been so well documented over the years by the media and the existence of a wealth of archival footage gave the project a great impetus.

One of the first decisions I made was to shoot on Super 16. It would ensure the film retained its cinematic qualities and complement the black and white archival material, nearly all shot on film. The aim was to seamlessly marry the extraordinarily rich archival sources with the contemporary footage in the form of observational film. The cost of shooting on film forced me to be in control of every frame. Our screen ratio was 15:1. Currently documentaries mostly shot on digital cameras have a ratio of anything between 50 & 100: 1. In order to achieve this, meticulous advance planning was required. I literally had to almost make the film in my head, before embarking on shooting.

The shooting of Lionel, like all observational films, was driven by process. In the process of developing and shooting, two things were fundamental to our approach; learning to avoid clichés and developing the trust of our main characters, to the point we had earned their trust and they felt comfortable with conveying their truth.

The issue of trust was absolutely central to the production of this film. I talked with Lionel and visited him on a number of occasions before we agreed to move forward and commence filming.

  lionel with elvis
  Lionel Rose with Elvis Presley

This is not an academic film, although it deals in complex subtext. It follows and describes lived experience, cutting from the present to the past. We deploy conventional material - interviews, observational footage, photographs, news footage and newspaper clippings to help tell the story.

The film uses time, space and music in a particular way. The film has time to breathe. It seems leisurely, because Lionel's life is pretty relaxed. Lionel has moved through life at his own pace and we are not afraid to create a sense of a certain feeling of lassitude. In the archival footage, the expressions on Lionel's face often say more than words can create.

The key themes in the film are about memory, identity and respect. We were interested in exploring how Lionel became a mythic sporting figure and his struggle with the dimensions of that myth in his every day life. Being famous has its own set of rules to live by - its own language, culture, rules, and aspirations. To translate this slightly mysterious world for the viewer has required a great deal of thought and research in terms of my approach to filming as well as how I tell the story.

Whilst making the film, Lionel suffered a stroke leaving him immobile and without speech. Understanding the importance of Lionel Rose in Australian history we wanted his story to be told while he was still alive, so we were determined to push on. Two weeks after his stroke we were back filming. Due to Lionel's fighting spirit he improved a great deal, however his speech has never fully recovered. We managed to work around this tragedy as we already had many audio recordings and filming sessions completed before his stroke. The strength and depth of archival footage and interviews gave us enough material to justify pushing on.

Eddie Martin, 2008
Courtesy Circe Films Pty Ltd

lionel rose
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